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    The Podium

    Feeding hungry coffee farmers

    Mention the local food movement and many people will think of farmers’ markets, trendy restaurants, or the dilemma of buying a local apple versus an organic apple.

    Few people will think of coffee.

    And yet one of the main arguments for buying locally produced food — support for family farmers and local economies — applies even to a global commodity like coffee.


    Over 70 percent of the world’s coffee is produced by small-scale farmers who cultivate the bean on farms less than 5 acres in size. Millions of these farmers also live a highly vulnerable existence. Many go hungry between the harvests in a phenomenon referred to in Central America as “los meses flacos,” or the thin months.

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    Nature only produces coffee in tropical climes, but those who drink it, and those of us who bring it to market, should unite around a fresh view of the world marketplace, taking responsibility to address livelihood challenges no matter where they exist in our global village.

    This week in Boston, as some 9,000 coffee industry leaders, from farmers to traders to baristas, gather at the 25th annual exposition of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, we call on our peers in the coffee value chain to join forces to combat seasonal hunger in coffee farmer communities.

    We have been attuned to the issue of food insecurity in the coffee lands for years. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. found in 2007 that a shocking 67 percent of its producers in Mexico and Central America suffered from food insecurity for three to eight months each year.

    For more than a decade, Cambridge-based Root Capital has provided farm credit and financial management training to coffee cooperatives, and other small and growing agricultural businesses, that buy from family farmers in Latin America and Africa. Root Capital’s finance enables them to access the international markets that pay higher prices than local markets. It shores up the businesses so that they can act as anchor institutions in the developing world, offering small-scale farmers more sustainable livelihoods.


    But as we’ve both learned, even access to global markets is not enough to ensure food security in some farm communities. And today, because of climate change, coffee farmers are even more vulnerable. Rains come at the wrong time in the harvest cycle, or come as violent downpours that can ruin coffee cherries. Climate change is spurring diseases like coffee rust, now devastating the Central American harvest, and pests like the berry borer.

    So how can we, as coffee industry leaders and coffee drinkers, alike, help farmers at the base of the value chain?

    First, we can strengthen food security through staple crops and household gardens. As value chain partners we should hold ourselves accountable for what we’re doing to reduce vulnerable farmers’ reliance on a single exportable cash crop.

    In our experience, helping coffee farmers diversify into crops, like corn, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, for their own food needs and for selling in domestic markets is especially fruitful. It creates more resilient farmers, which in turn helps ensure a reliable supply of high-quality beans for companies and consumers alike.

    Second, we can help coffee enterprises get microloans into the hands of farmers. When coffee farmers run out of cash in between harvests they often resort to taking credit from loan sharks simply to feed their families. This predatory lending locks them into a vicious cycle of indebtedness. When coffee enterprises offer microloans to meet the needs of farm households, however, the impact can be transformative.


    Customized farm credit helps individual producers launch side businesses like animal husbandry and selling milk or eggs. It also enables them to purchase inputs like organic fertilizer and seed stock to increase agricultural productivity or adapt to climate change. Furthermore, it can improve the quality of their lives, such as when cooperatives like El Gorrión, in Nicaragua, offer affordable credit to members to buy solar panels that bring electricity to their homes — replacing dirty kerosene lamps and allowing their children to study at night.

    Third, we should share our global business expertise. Coffee cooperatives need agronomic assistance, business training and financing to diversify their economic opportunities and set up micro-credit systems, and that’s where industry leaders can step in. The newly-launched Coffeelands Food Security Coalition, an association of five industry leaders and several nonprofits, is one such vehicle for lending support.

    Lastly, coffee drinkers, take a fresh, expanded view of your local economy. The next time you buy coffee look for brands that are not only sustainably sourced, but that are engaged in strengthening distant local economies, where the vast majority of the world’s poorest farmers live. Though coffee farms don’t grace your local community, the small-scale farmer down South who labored hard to produce your brew deserves a sustainable livelihood just as much as the farmer down the road who grew your arugula and beets.

    Brian P. Kelley is the CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. William F. Foote is the CEO and founder of Root Capital, a nonprofit agricultural lender based in Cambridge.